Over 20 years ago Grant Morrison asked why these things still excite us? Jeff Lemire’s current run on "Animal Man" is counting on them still doing so.
Animal Man #25Publisher: DC
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Jeff Lemire, Rafael Albuquerque
Publication Date: 2014-01
With Animal Man #25 Jeff Lemire’s tenure chronicling the adventures of Buddy Baker is now one issue less than the most famous Animal Man run by Grant Morrison (although Lemire has also written a couple of annuals). It’s probably been the most successful Animal Man run since Morrison left in 1990, and probably the only one since then that many readers (including myself) have read. The two runs though have followed different paths: Morrison’s run built up momentum and ambition as it went on and famously finished off with a meta-story which made comment on the comic industry at that point, including the more ‘mature’, ‘grim ‘n’ gritty’ books that had popped up in the 1980s, and which would continue well into the 1990s. Lemire’s on the other hand started off with a bang amidst the arrival of The New 52, but like many of those books, has pretty much stuck to the same formula throughout its run, centering almost all of its stories around The Red, albeit with a fair bit of character development in between.
“We thought that by making your world more violent, we would make it more ‘realistic’, more ‘adult’,” Morrison said when he met his main character in his final issue, “God help us if that’s what it means.” Yet over twenty years later, here we are: a lake of blood, people getting strangled by tendrils, and the promise on the cover of our hero’s "RAGE … UNLEASHED AT LAST!" And two issues ago, we had a cover proclaiming a "REIGN OF BLOOD!", and the main villain brutally ripping off the head of some poor, dog-headed creature. Morrison killed off Buddy Baker’s family, but in his last act of kindness on the title, brought them back to life so that Buddy could have a happier future. Lemire has re-killed Buddy’s son, and in the aftermath of that death, split him up from his wife, although this issue goes some way to suggesting that relationship could be mended. Buddy’s daughter, Maxine, who was essentially just a normal, inconspicuous little kid in Morrison’s run, has now reached the point where sailing on a lake of blood with a boatful of creatures with ugly animal heads is fairly commonplace--which has made her a far more interesting character by the way, but is fairly emblematic of how everything has become more "grown up" and darker during Lemire’s run. One might say "God help us" indeed…
Yet to imply that Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man has merely traded on blood and gore and bleakness is to be too dismissive. As I said, the book started off very strong--anyone who saw back in 2011 the jagged logo and Animal Man wrapped up in a Christ-like pose in blood-red tendrils on the cover of the first issue was not likely to soon forget it. But the book also had space and light, particularly when Travel Foreman was doing the art, and there was even a child-like, bedtime story quality to the concept of ‘The Red’ when it was first introduced, helped by Buddy’s kids Maxine and Cliff becoming major protagonists in the series. Animal Man was thoroughly a book for the 2010s, and a fine example of what DC’s New 52 could accomplish--sharp, stylish, family-oriented (in the same way that TV series like Breaking Bad and Homeland focus on the families on their characters), and in a popculture obsessed with vampires and zombies, a nifty horror book to boot. It also had an intertwined mythology with DC’s other star ‘horror’ book, Swamp Thing, which built up into an epic post-apocalyptic crossover that had major ramifications for both titles.
The book hasn’t been quite the same since. Even the humor has now dulled--Maxine and Socks the cat are barely in this issue, and most of it does centre around rage and anguish, although there are a few well-written emotional moments between Buddy and his wife Ellen. But as soon as we get a Morrison-style happy ending, Buddy is whisked off into another nightmare, in which just to escalate this bleakness and suffering to its logical conclusion, "every atom screams in horror". Morrison’s message was essentially that imagination should be more important to entertainment than suffering and death, and nowadays that’s what Animal Man mostly seems to be about. I have tossed around what rating to give this issue… if I had guts I’d give it a 5, based on the level to which I enjoyed it (that is, thinking seriously about dropping it from my standing order at the comic shop). On the other hand, it’s written well enough to deserve something more like a 7, pretty much any Jeff Lemire book is going to be a well-crafted, thoughtful read. But there are too many other books that I’ve been rating at 7 that make it to the top of my read pile well before this one. And I didn’t like the art either…